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Yonge Street between College Street and Queen Street will be undergoing excavations.

Fred Lum

Sam the Record Man is long gone, along with the Funland Arcade, Flash Jack’s Head Shop and the grindhouse theatre, the Rio. After decades of old Yonge Street being chipped away, about the only remnant from those days seems to be the Zanzibar Tavern strip club.

There’s one more artifact, though, and it’s hiding in plain sight: the road itself.

A relic from an earlier generation of transportation planning, much of downtown Yonge Street reserves the bulk of its space for the relatively few vehicles, while hordes of pedestrians overload the narrow sidewalks.

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It’s a situation at odds with modern approaches to city-building, and one that may soon change. With Yonge scheduled to be torn up for water-main work, between Queen and College streets, Toronto will be facing a generational question. After decades of the roadway staying the same, what should come next?

The most groundbreaking idea being floated by the city involves Yonge going completely car-free in this area. Less radical would be reducing the number of driving lanes. Either would free up space for people on foot, as well as for patios and sidewalk amenities.

Although the “Yonge Tomorrow” process is still in the very early stages − the first public consultation happened Friday − most of the options reflect the need to serve a fast-changing area. This part of the city is becoming a neighbourhood in its own right and large numbers of additional residents are expected to move into towers being planned nearby.

Claire Nelischer, a project manager at the Ryerson City Building Institute who co-authored a “Great Streets” report that pegged Yonge as one to watch, said that revitalizing this roadway could make it a key place for area residents to socialize.

“I think people are craving opportunities to, you know, to people watch, to be in public, to experience the life of the city,” she said. “I think especially in this neighbourhood … more and more people [are] living these vertical lifestyles, our main streets become more and more important.”


Yonge Street looking south from Dundas Street in downtown Toronto on July 11, 1980.

Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Although a historic hangout spot, parts of Yonge Street now offer few reasons to linger.

The stretch between Queen and College has only one sidewalk patio on Yonge itself – a pair of small tables at the Pickle Barrel – and very few places to sit outside. Other than a handful of benches at Yonge-Dundas Square, the only city-provided seating is a single bench near College, placed alongside a garbage can. There are minimal trees.

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Few of the businesses are in buildings that captivate or draw in passersby. In the terminology of planners, the buildings don’t engage the public. And in some cases, businesses have actively tried to prevent people lingering.

Two years ago, a building owner mounted sound-emitting devices aimed at discouraging teenagers from using a neighbouring parkette, removing them only after the issue hit the media. A jeweller has posted a no-loitering sign aimed at the public sidewalk, warning that “police have the authority to enforce trespass act.”

Without reason to or places to stop, this part of Yonge, particularly south of Gerrard, has become something of a pedestrian thoroughfare. It fails at the urban goal of being “sticky” – encouraging people to stay a while.

“There should be spaces that are just free for people to congregate and to come together,” said Kristyn Wong-Tam, the local councillor. “Right now on Yonge Street, people are rushing to get through the neighbourhood, because there’s really no quality spaces for people to stay and linger.”

She said that revamping the downtown part of Yonge is just the first part of a larger revitalization planned to stretch all the way from the lake to Davenport Road. And she noted that Toronto’s downtown is competing with other cities that are pouring money and creative energy into their own centres.

“If we don’t do that for our main street, we are going to be left behind,” she said. “And that means that these global brands that we’re also trying to attract, they’re not going to want to come here.”

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Of the 13 Yonge Street options put forward by the city, most involve substantial increases to the amount of space for those on foot.

At their most extreme, two of the options close the road entirely to automobiles. Other possibilities involve reducing automobile road space by anywhere from one to three lanes – from the current four – and dividing that real estate among pedestrians and, possibly, cyclists.

YONGE STREET REDESIGN

The current situation on Yonge Street, between Queen and Gerrard. Although the majority of people moving along this roadway do so on foot, there are modest sidewalks and the bulk of the space is dedicated to automobiles. There is no room set aside for cyclists.

3.9m

3.1m

3m

3m

3.1m

3.9m

Typical existing width = 20 metres

One of the re-design options cuts in half the number of driving lanes and uses the extra space to widen the sidewalks dramatically. This would be less convenient for drivers, city staff say, while significantly improving the pedestrian

environment. A parallel street would have cycling options, while those who want to ride on Yonge would share space with vehicles.

20 metres

Another option involves reducing the driving lanes to one. In this case, the freed-up space would be split between cycling space and wider sidewalks. City staff say this would still allow vehicular access for transit, goods and services while improving conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. It would also reduce connectivity and require work to determine who could use the lane, in which direction, at what time.

20 metres

CITY OF TORONTO;

TRISH McALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

YONGE STREET REDESIGN

The current situation on Yonge Street, between Queen

and Gerrard. Although the majority of people moving along this roadway do so on foot, there are modest

sidewalks and the bulk of the space is dedicated

to automobiles. There is no room set aside for cyclists.

3.9m

3.1m

3m

3m

3.1m

3.9m

Typical existing width = 20 metres

One of the re-design options cuts in half the number

of driving lanes and uses the extra space to widen the sidewalks dramatically. This would be less convenient

for drivers, city staff say, while significantly improving

the pedestrian environment. A parallel street would have cycling options, while those who want to ride on Yonge would share space with vehicles.

20 metres

Another option involves reducing the driving lanes to one. In this case, the freed-up space would be split between cycling space and wider sidewalks. City staff say this would still allow vehicular access for transit, goods and services while improving conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. It would also reduce connectivity and require work to determine who could use the lane, in which direction,

at what time.

20 metres

CITY OF TORONTO; TRISH McALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

YONGE STREET REDESIGN

The current situation on Yonge Street, between Queen and Gerrard. Although the majority of people moving along this roadway do so

on foot, there are modest sidewalks and the bulk of the space is dedicated to automobiles. There is no room set aside for cyclists.

3.9m

3.1m

3m

3m

3.1m

3.9m

Typical existing width = 20 metres

One of the re-design options cuts in half the number of driving lanes

and uses the extra space to widen the sidewalks dramatically. This would be less convenient for drivers, city staff say, while significantly improving the pedestrian environment. A parallel street would have cycling options, while those who want to ride on Yonge would share space with vehicles.

20 metres

Another option involves reducing the driving lanes to one. In this case, the freed-up space would be split between cycling space and wider sidewalks. City staff say this would still allow vehicular access for transit, goods and services while improving conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. It would also reduce connectivity and require work to determine who could use the lane, in which direction, at what time.

20 metres

CITY OF TORONTO; TRISH McALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

One model that could emerge is a street that is neither fully open to vehicles, nor fully closed. Examples of this sort of flexible street include Dundas Place in London, Ont. This project is designed to have neither curbs nor gutters, relying on movable bollards to define how motorists and others can use the space.

Increased walking space on Yonge would do more than allow the addition of pedestrian-friendly features. It would also alleviate what Ms. Wong-Tam characterized as “dangerously crowded” conditions on the sidewalks.

Data from the city show that, at street level, pedestrians are the majority of people moving in this area. Depending on the time of day and year, people on foot are between 50 and 75 per cent of people using the roadway. And as development continues to attract a demographic more likely to walk, this preponderance appears likely to become even more pronounced.

According to the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area, the population is expected to jump 42 per cent from 2009 to 2022. The BIA’s latest figures show 181,000 people living within a 10-minute walk of this part of Yonge. If it were its own municipality, this area would be among the 30 most populous in the country, bigger than Sudbury or Oshawa.

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Development proposals for multiple soaring towers around Yonge and Gerrard continue this growth trajectory. These would mean the 79-storey tower called Aura − the tallest residential building in the country − would no longer loom alone, and they’d bring in thousands more residents.

“This neighbourhood is becoming a city unto itself,” said Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge BIA. “How do we accommodate all the things for people that need to be in the public realm?”


Looking north on Yonge Street from Shuter Street on Dec. 3, 2008.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto tried to reinvent Yonge Street close to half a century ago, making it a pedestrian mall in the summer by closing it to vehicles. The popularity was reflected in big crowds – including people drawn to the then-Toronto rarity of a licensed outdoor patio − but critics weren’t happy.

The early 1970s was a skeezier era for the street. At the time, Yonge was noted for its go-go bars and body-rub parlours. Some Torontonians began tutting about moral decay.

Writing in Spacing magazine in 2017, Daniel Ross noted that people were unhappy about more than just the vice. Citizens also complained, he wrote, about “aggressive panhandling, and groups of directionless, probably degenerate, ‘hippies’ and other non-conformist youth.”

The 1974 Yonge pedestrianization was reversed as part of efforts to minimize the effects of a transit strike, and the idea never recovered.

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In another attempt at reinvention, the Eaton Centre opened later in the decade. In the urban wisdom of the era, downtown malls were seen as a way to stop shoppers flocking to the suburbs. But this one had a deadening effect on the area, particularly in its early decades, when the Yonge Street façade was largely closed to the street. Nearby rents were driven down and a proliferation of marginal stores was spawned.

This legacy is still seen on Yonge Street, which today has a heavy presence of fast-food outlets and payday-loan establishments.

The area has started to change – the BIA’s Mr. Garner points out the popularity of Japanese retailer Muji and notes the pending opening of a combined yoga studio and bar – but remains constrained by its dated roadway.

When new sneakers are released at the Vans store the lineup outside chokes the narrow sidewalk. Smokers ducking out of restaurant and bar Yonge Street Warehouse can do the same. And when the wildly popular Filipino chicken restaurant Jollibee opens a half-block north of the Eaton Centre, mob scenes are expected to overwhelm the available space.

The BIA is not taking a position yet on which of the Yonge redesign options might be best. But the group has previously called for wider sidewalks and less space for drivers.

Mr. Garner noted that there was no traffic crisis several years ago when Yonge was narrowed temporarily, with patios installed along the curb. “The sky didn’t fall,” he said.

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Ms. Wong-Tam is also not signalling how Yonge Street should be redesigned, though she called it “a very safe assumption” that the result will be wider sidewalks.

“This will be the new grand promenade of Toronto,” she said. “We are looking for that great main street. Here’s our chance to repurpose Yonge Street.”

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